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What is Basal Cell Skin Cancer?

By Thomma Grindstaff
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Basal cell skin cancer, also known as basal cell carcinoma, is the most common type of skin cancer, and it is also the most common type of cancer in the world. This particular cancer grows slowly and rarely spreads to any distant part of the body. If it isn't treated by a medical professional, however, it can cause disfigurement by growing into proximate bone and tissue. It got its name because its cells look like basal cells found in the epidermis, the top layer of the skin.

Both basal and squamous cell carcinoma are categorized as non-melanoma skin cancers, meaning that they grow and spread less aggressively than do melanomas. Squamous cell carcinoma is more likely than basal cell cancer to metastasize, or spread to distant parts of the body. Though basal cell is the least dangerous of the three types of skin cancer, any changes in a person's skin should be examined by a medical professional as soon as possible.

One of the major risk factors for basal cell skin cancer is overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, whether from the sun or from tanning booths. People who live in regions that receive high levels of UV radiation are at risk for developing this form of cancer. Though it does not tend to develop until a person is older, it's important for individuals to start protecting themselves from UV radiation at an early age through the use of sunscreen. Basal cell carcinoma is also more likely to develop in people whose hair is red or blond and whose skin is light-colored.

This form of cancer causes changes to a person's skin, some subtle and others more obvious. Some cancers don't look much different from normal skin and appear only as flesh-colored, raised bumps. Others can be brown or pink in color. Basal cell skin cancers can also manifest as sore areas that never seem to heal, regions of dry, raw skin, or shiny growths that contain small, visible blood vessels. Most of these skin cancers appear on the head, face and neck, but they can arise anywhere on the body, including the torso and legs.

Medical professionals treat this cancer by removing it, whether by excising the tumor or using curettage and electrodesiccation to scrape it away and then burn away any cancer cells that may persist. In cryosurgery, the cancer cells are killed by freezing, and in Mohs surgery, the area of carcinoma is cut away until no cancer cells remain. If a person has had basal cell skin carcinoma once, he or she is at risk for developing it again. Anyone who has been treated for the cancer must be vigilant about checking for changes in his or her skin and limiting exposure to UV radiation.

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